The Alpine trek of a ‘Ceylon’ elephant

By Tissa Devendra

My interest in this extraordinary story began with a supper that Jose Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel winner had, in 2007 or so, with Professor Gilda Lopes Encarnacao at the “Elephant” restaurant in Salzburg, Austria. Their talk about a fascinating episode in relations between Portugal and Austria inspired Saramago’s final work ‘The Elephant’s Journey’.

I read a review of this book by J.M. Ledgard and was immediately struck by the fact that the elephant in this story had been gifted by King Buvaneka Bahu VII of Kotte to King John III of Portugal. The animal probably accompanied the Sinhala Embassy of 1541 that carried the now-legendary golden image of the infant Prince Dharmapala to be crowned by the king of Portugal.

This sturdy young bull elephant from the royal elephant stables of Kotte clearly had the strength and stamina to withstand the rigours of the arduous sea voyage from Colombo to Lisbon. There is no doubt that he withstood all these tribulations thanks to the tender loving care of his mahout. Little did the elephant and his keeper ever imagine the transcontinental journey across Europe that lay in their future. Our elephant, now ‘christened’ Solomon was installed as a prize exhibit in King John’s royal menagerie – full of exotic beasts and birds gifted by his intrepid voyagers to distant lands. His mahout was dubbed ‘Subro’, possibly easier on Portuguese tongues than his Sinhala name – quite likely ‘Subaya’.

Enter the Prince

In 1550 or so, Prince Maximilian of Austria, later the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, paid a visit to his uncle King John in Lisbon. While there he visited the royal menagerie where he was duly amazed by the exotic birds and beasts, particularly the elephants. King John then gifted Solomon to his nephew suggesting the Prince rename him ‘Suleyman’ as a jibe at the Sultan of Turkey, the most feared enemy of the West. Solomon, his mahout Subhro and a small team of minders now set off on their arduous journey to Vienna.

The border town of Castelo Rodrigo, before crossing into Italy was the scene of an amazing leave-taking. Solomon bade farewell to the porters who had accompanied him from Lisbon by caressing them with his trunk, reducing them to tears. Saramago says “For the first time in the history of humanity an animal was bidding farewell in the literal sense, to a few human beings as if he owed them respect and friendship ….an idea which can perhaps be found inscribed in letters of gold in the fundamental laws of the elephantine race.”

Scaling the Alps

When Prince Maximilian disembarked at Genoa on his way home, he was delighted to find that the promised elephant and Subhro had arrived just before him. Soon after, the royal entourage, together with Solomon and Subro, set off on the long trek to Vienna. Sometime during the journey the elephant had to suffer the indignity of an attempted exorcism and in Padua, forced on its knees to perform a miracle. He endured all this as well as crossing the snow-covered Alps in mid-winter. Neither he nor the thunderstruck Alpine herders who saw him pass would have known of the Carthaginian Hannibal’s elephant cavalry that lumbered up these peaks a thousand years earlier.

The gentle giant

Prince Maximilian’s entourage reached Vienna, at last, on March 7, 1552. As the royal party passed through the streets, the Prince was somewhat peeved to find his elephant attracted more attention and admiration than he himself did.

In the rush to see and touch the strange and gigantic creature, a child was separated from its mother and fell at the elephant’s feet. The animal gently picked him up with its trunk and put him back in his mother’s arms. The role Subhro must have played in this episode has, unfortunately, never been recorded. This drama so astonished the throng that a plaque was set up in the place and, who knows, may yet be there.

Solomon and Subhro now settled into their third home – and new names. The elephant became Suleyman as an insult to the Sultan of Turkey. Maximilian himself gave Subhro a new name “From now on you will be called Fritz.” “Fritz? said Subhro in a pained voice. Yes, it’s an easy name to remember, besides there are an enormous number of Fritzes in Austria, so you’ll be one among many, but the only one with an elephant!”

Suleyman and ‘Fritz’ spent two years in Vienna till the elephant died over Christmas in1553.

Farewell to Vienna

Maximilian granted ‘Fritz’ an honorarium and gifted him a mule to carry him to faraway Lisbon. Thus does Subhro, who scaled the Alps on an elephant. leave Vienna as Fritz on a humble mule and thus vanish from recorded history. His life is an intriguing footnote to the Portuguese Encounter. This mahout from the royal elephant stables of Kotte seems to have adapted well to life in Europe and been able to speak Portuguese and German to communicate with his masters. He obviously had the closest rapport with the young elephant he cared for, especially during their gruelling transcontinental journey Alas, the humble leave no record on history’s pages – else Subhro’s would be one of the most fascinating life stories of this age.

Suleyman’s end

Suleyman’s body parts were taken as trophies and relics. His bones were made into a chair at the Abbey of Kremenminster. His bulletproof hide – bulletproof to early modern bullets – was stuffed and presented to Albert V of Bavaria. This apparition of him stood in the Old Academy in Munich and, later, in the Bavarian National Museum until it was blown apart in a World War II bombing raid, when he passed out at last from history’s archives and into the consolations of literature.

[With acknowledgement to the writings of Jose Saramago, J.M.Ledgard and Venerable S.Dhammika]

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